Thursday, February 04, 2010

January 2010 reading round up

The ghost map : a street, an epidemic and the two men who battled to save Victorian London / Steven Johnson.
At 6am on 28 August 1854, the city of London struggled to sleep at the end of an oppressively hot summer. But at 40 Broad Street, Soho, Sarah Lewis was awake tending to her feverish baby girl. As she threw a used bucket of water into the cesspool at the front of her lodgings, it marked the start of a cholera epidemic that would consume 50,000 lives in England and Wales - and become a battle between man and microbe unlike any other. Steven Johnson takes us day by day through what happened and re-creates a London full of dust heaps, furnaces and slaughterhouses; where a ghost class of bone-pickers, rag gatherers, dredger men and mud-larks scavenged off waste; where families were crammed into tiny rooms and cartloads of bodies wheeled down the streets. And at the heart of the story is Doctor John Snow: vegetarian, teetotaller, anaesthesiologist and Soho resident, whose use of maps to prove that cholera was spread by water - and not borne on the air as most believed - would bring him into conflict with the entire medical establishment, but ultimately defeat his era's greatest killer.~from the blurb
I don't know what it is but I currently have a fascination for plagues, disease and finding answers to their cures. Heh.  Anyway, this is a very readable account of the cholera epidemic in Victorian London.  I found it amazing to see how little sanitation was practiced in those days but had remind myself that the germ theory of disease was still in it's infancy.  So glad we know what we know now!

The bread with seven crusts / Susan Temby.
A story of prisoners of war in Australia where attitudes and treatment of these strange foreigners reflects the time and wartime pressures.  I had strong impressions of my grandparents reading this story - they were farmers during the war and they carried their attitudes from that period to their death.  It's also a story of love and how it occurs in the strangest of ways.  A good read, quite realistic I thought.

The captive wife / Fiona Kidman.
When Betty Guard steps ashore in Sydney, in 1834, she meets with a heroine's welcome. Her survival during a four-month kidnapping ordeal amongst Taranaki Maori is hailed as nothing short of a miracle. But questions about what really happened slowly surface within the elite governing circles of Sydney. ~from the blurb
Whizzed through this one - not a bad read though somewhat predictable.  

People of the book : a novel / Geraldine Brooks.
In 1996, Hanna Heath, a young Australian book conservator is called to analyse the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, a priceless six-hundred-year-old Jewish prayer book that has been salvaged from a destroyed Bosnian library. When Hanna discovers a series of artifacts in the centuries' old binding, she unwittingly exposes an international cover up.~from the blurb
This was great - loved the stories behind the stuff the conservator discovers.  Got annoyed at Hanna at the beginning because she seemed so hard bitten but she came around.  So many literary treasures have been lost to the world through war and malice and I really admire librarians who have risked their lives to save some of them... which really did happen in some of these places.

The boy who harnessed the wind : creating currents of electricity and hope / William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer.
Relates how an enterprising teenager in Malawi builds a windmill from scraps he finds around his village and brings electricity, and a future, to his family.~from the blurb
I requested the library purchase this book after reading about William on TEDtalks.  His story is inspiring, a triumph over significant adversity and has a number of threads.  One in particular I liked was his drive to make life better for his family.  Another was the fact that his dream began as a result of him finding a book in a library.  Libraries really do change lives.

Weeping waters : a novel based on a true story / Anne Maria Nicholson.
Late at night on Christmas Eve 1953, a volcanic eruption on Mt Ruapehu destroys a rail bridge, plunging a passenger train into the river. 151 people are drowned and hundreds seriously injured. Years later volcanologist Frances Nelson arrives as the mountain heats up again and is embroiled in a battle between science and Maori beliefs. A contemporary tale about love, redemption and the secrets of family. The Tangiwai disaster holds the key to a young volcanologist's family history, as she discovers when she comes to New Zealand to work on a warning system for Mt Ruapehu.~from the blurb
I'd read the sequel to this earlier so wanted to read this one too.  I found the back story of Tangiwai incredibly poignant and the modern story a bit superficial, and some of the characterisation a bit stereotypical.

My enemy's cradle / Sara Young.
Cyrla's neighbours have begun to whisper. Her cousin, Anneke, is pregnant and has passed the rigorous exams for admission to the Lebensborn, a maternity home for girls carrying German babies. But Anneke's soldier has disappeared, and the Nazis confiscate fatherless children. Cyrla, sent from Poland to hide with her Dutch relatives, has been warned that her neighbours know she is half Jewish. She won't be safe with them for long. A cruel twist of fate places Cyrla with the terrible choice between certain discovery in her cousin's home and taking Anneke's place in the Lebensborn. Cyrla and Anneke are nearly identical. If she takes refuge in the enemy's lair, can Cyrla fool the doctors, nurses, guards, and other mothers-to-be? How will she escape before they discover she is not who she claims?~from the blurb
Well some of this one I had to stop myself from saying "Really?!" a few times as there were a number of convenient deaths and occurances.  But still, it was a book that stuck in my mind a bit.  Maybe because of the babies involved or maybe because of the difficult choices made by some of the characters.

Cross the river to home / Kaye Kelly.
Set in the 1870s, this is the story of an impossible love between a half-Chinese woman, Mai, and Henry, a young immigrant from the UK who has come to the South Island of New Zealand in search of his sister. She is now living in Charleston, married to a local doctor, to whom Mai takes her grandfather for eye surgery. With family ties, racial prejudice and the local community conspiring against any match between Henry and Mai, their futures promise to be bleak. But perhaps Mai's grandfather is not the only one destined to see more clearly. ~ from the blurb
It's difficult to say whether or not this scenario would have actually happened in the way the book portrays given the real social barriers between Chinese and Europeans in the time period.  A nice kind of love story though.

Those who save us / Jenna Blum.
Family secrets of Nazi Germany are at the core of this powerful first novel told in two narratives that alternate between New Heidelberg, Minnesota, in the present, and the small town of Weimar near Buchenwald during World War II. Trudy is a professor of German history in Minnesota, where she's teaching a seminar on women's roles in Nazi Germany and conducting interviews with Germans about how they're dealing with what they did during the war. But her mother, Anna, won't talk about it, not even to her own daughter. Trudy knows, she remembers, that Anna was mistress to a big Nazi camp officer. Why did she do it? Was he Trudy's father? The interviews are a plot contrivance to introduce a range of attitudes, from blatant racism to crippling survivor guilt. But the characters, then and now, are drawn with rare complexity, including a brave, gloomy, unlucky rescuer and a wheeler-dealer survivor. Anna's story is a gripping mystery in a page-turner that raises universal questions of shame, guilt, and personal responsibility.~from Booklist
I vacillated between annoyance and sympathy with the main characters in this one.  It was a good story and covers things like intergenerational trauma, the hard decisions people have to make during wartime and the multidimensional personalities of people.  The ending was a little contrived but did service to wrap up the story.  One area that this book touches on is how ordinary citizens in Germany responded to the hardships faced.  I'd like to see more literature written on this available in the English speaking world.  We have so much from the Allies perspective and from those who were persecuted (and rightly so) but the time is ripe for a groundswell of writing to balance the viewpoint.  Well, I think so anyway. :-)

Diary of a girl in Changi : 1941-1945 / Sheila Allan.
``If readers expect to read about shocking brutality and rapes then they'll be disappointed,'' says Allan in the introduction to the subtle yet moving diary that she kept during her captivity in Changi Prison after Singapore fell to the Japanese during WW II. Allan, born to a Malaysian mother and an Australian father, became a prisoner of war at age 17 and, without sentiment or bitterness, secretly chronicled the activities of her internment, successfully conveying the resiliency of the human spirit and its ability to adapt to adversity. Frequently Allan's entries read like a social calendar: fancy dress balls, orchestral and choral performances put on by her fellow prisoners. For sanity's sake, Allan focused more on Christmas celebrations and church services than on her numerous bouts of malaria and dysentery. Yet because those passages involving her hardships are so rare, they cut through the seemingly mundane entries with a chilling force. Particularly haunting is her description of the desperate hunger that drove her to eat worms and a baby mouse. ``Without thinking I scooped up one and popped it in my mouth and before I realised what I had done, I swallowed it.'' Allan's return to Changi 50 years after the war brings her memoir to a poignant close.~Publishers Weekly
The blurb says it all really.  Always interesting to read about things closer to home.

The trespass / Barbara Ewing.
It is 1849 and following the death of her mother and protective elder sister, Harriet is left to the mercy of her father, who would rather she acted as his wife than his daughter. Her only option is to follow her cousin to New Zealand, but her father is prepared to chase her across oceans.~blurb
Kind of spooky in parts.  Enjoyed the pictorials of early New Zealand.

The heretic's daughter : a novel / Kathleen Kent.
"In 1752 Sarah Carrier Chapman, confined to her home and weak with infirmity, writes a letter to her granddaughter, revealing the secret she has guarded closely for six decades. It is a haunting account of the horrors that enveloped a New England town called Salem, and compelled Sarah, then just a young girl, to make a decision that, would change her life forever. A little more than a year before the witch trials will begin, Sarah and her family arrive in nearby Andover to face a community gripped by superstition and fear. With the increase in Indian raids and the spread of the plague, the Puritans come to believe that heretics in their midst are responsible for their misfortune. Based on the accusations of a dozen young girls, neighbour is pitted against neighbour, friend against friend, and the hysteria escalates, sweeping more than two hundred men, women, and children into prison on charges of witchcraft - Sarah's mother, Martha Carrier, among them. Often at odds with each other, mother and daughter must now stand defiantly together in the face of imprisonment, torture, and even death. Out of love for her children, Martha asks Sarah to commit an act of heresy - a lie that will most surely condemn Martha even as it will save her daughter."--BOOK JACKET.
When I was in 6th form we studied Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials and it's one of those things that stick in your mind.  I think the book does a great job of portraying the atmosphere pervading the European settlements of the time.

When people matter most : vision driven leadership / Colin Prentice with Ian Hunter.
One of the youngest secondary school principals in New Zealand, Colin Prentice was the founding Principal of Macleans College, Auckland, where he established a reputation for high academic standards, firm discipline, and age-old values. Following a Commonwealth Relations Scholarship to London University he then led Mt Roskill Grammar to become one of the top multicultural schools in New Zealand. In 1994 he took over as CEO of New Zealand’s premier aid agency, World Vision, visiting trouble spots such as Rwanda, Cambodia, Chernobyl, and Kosovo. In 2000 he re-joined the education world, liaising with secondary schools as Director of the Schools Partnership Office at Auckland University. His book, "When people matter most: vision-driven leadership" offers a timely insight into the role and impact of a leader in transforming schools, organisations, and communities. From the classrooms of Auckland to the freezing wastes of Mongolia it takes you on a heart-stirring journey that inspires and challenges. It is a pragmatic but deeply human-values-based approach to leadership and life.~from the blurb
I read this one because Prentice was my high school principal and I vividly remember the effect he had on the school when he came to take over.  The gossip mill was churning and we heard all sorts of stories of how strict things were going to become - some of this fueled by the teachers themselves who were obviously feeling threatened.  It was interesting to read of his experiences there.  At the time I had no real inkling of the difficulties he faced in leading the school but I did see the results of it, and for most students I would say it was a positive change.  I particularly liked his view that leadership is actually about service, something that struck a chord with me.

The kommandant's girl / Pam Jenoff.
Emma had lived in the closed orthodox Jewish community of Krakow, Poland, until she began working at the university library and met Jacob. He sweeps her off her feet, and they marry on the eve of the Nazi invasion. Jacob immediately leaves to join the Jewish underground, and Emma returns to her family, now locked in the Jewish ghetto. Jacob provides false papers, enabling Emma to become Anna Lipowski and move in with his Catholic aunt Krysia, posing as her niece. Krysia works for the underground while maintaining her status as a leader in the arts community. During a dinner party, Emma/Anna is introduced to Nazi Kommadant Richwalder. Smitten, he asks her to come work for him. She agrees, knowing such access will aid the underground, and even becomes intimate with the enemy to gather information.~from the blurb
I had great hopes of this book which didn't really deliver.  I found the main character wimpy and naive and was more interested in the Kommandant, Krysia, and Anna's friend Marta - characters who seemed to have more depth. 

Book Circle Books

Love in the time of cholera / Gabriel García Márquez ; translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.
In their youth, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fell passionately in love. When Fermina eventually chooses to marry a wealthy, well-born doctor, Florentino is devastated, but he is a romantic. As he rises in his business career, he whiles away the years in 622 affairs - yet he reserves his heart for Fermina. Her husband dies at last, and Florentino purposefully attends the funeral. Fifty-one years, nine months, and four days after he first declared his love for Fermina, he will do so again.~from the blurb

This is a celebrated book about the many different forms of love that can occur between humans and I think it is meant to be read for that rather than for the characters themselves.  I have to admit I struggled a bit with this one.  The writing is a meandering run on sentence style which took some getting used to but there were gems of description in there that were great.  Having said that, I skipped bits of it.  I found Florentino pathetic and silly so that kind of spoiled it for me - I guess I'm not romantic enough but I felt like telling him to get over himself.  Fermina's husband seemed like a good chap to me but then I'm attracted to geeks and scientists and have a pragmatic view of love and marriage.  

This book is one of Oprah's book club recommendations and has some extremely positive reviews in different respectable places.  Either I wasn't in the right mood for it or I just can't handle anything too high brow but I don't think I'd bother reading it again.

The girl with the dragon tattoo / Stieg Larsson.
Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared off the secluded island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger family. There was no corpse, no witnesses, no evidence. But her uncle, Henrik, is convinced that she was murdered by someone in her own family, the deeply dysfunctional Vanger clan. Journalist Mikael is hired to investigate.~from the blurb

I finally got to read this book after forking out $5.00 for the "best seller" collection at the library - I was in a huge waiting list and just got tired of waiting.  I'm glad I did because it's a book I really enjoyed and which has some surprising relationships to make you think.  I loved the inclusions of  geekiness and photography in solving the mystery.  The characters are intriguing multidimensional people and the story evolves steadily.  I found it a page turner and I'll be looking for the next 2 books by the same author.  Unfortunately, these books were published posthumosly ... so that's it folks.

Total: 15 books (bit of a record for me but I did read a lot on holiday)
Fiction: 12
Non-fiction: 3


  1. i finished cholera this week, and i didn't like it either. at all. i always try to finish books(i'm not a quitter!), but i've decided not to force myself anymore. still have to read the book thief to get caught up!

  2. I just read "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" while on holiday. I bought it from Paper Plus though, I wasn't going to wait for months on the library waiting list! Yesterday I went and bought the second book, "The Girl Who Played With Fire" and it's great so far! I was particularly interested in reading these because of my Swedish ancestry. Such a shame that Steig Larsson died; he is a brilliant writer.

  3. You are an impressive reader!! I added a few to my book wishlist. I might break down a buy a few books that I've been really wanting to read. I get so impatient waiting until they are available!

  4. the ghost map I am going to add to my list to read. I disliked cholera. I was annoyed with the characters. I remember Oprah raving about it as well.

  5. Wow - what a list. Agree with your comments about People of the Book - really enjoyed that one. I am half way through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Enjoying it too - and thrillers aren't usually my thing. Very interesting characters. Will write my review when I finish :) I agree with your view on Cholera - I think it is a book that would reward academic study but like you, I found Florentino rather silly and quite creepy.

  6. OMG you read so many books this past month! Wow! I loved Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as well. Waiting for the 3rd book in the series from the library (read the second one last week)!